What women want: A safe retail experience while purchasing alcohol in Delhi
When Sanchi Sharma left her home to pick up some alcohol in outer Delhi’s Rohini last month, she could not have imagined the nightmare that was to follow. A 26-year old public relations professional, Sharma was hosting a house party in the front garden of her ground-floor home later that evening, and needed to make a quick beer run.
The local government liquor shop was about three kilometres away, and she asked a friend to accompany her in the car because the store was located in a dingy, unlit lane, and daylight was fading. When they reached the Sector 10 store, they parked a little distance away and walked to the store, but found it packed with only men.
“Despite the fact that the queue was very long and only had men, the shopkeeper saw us approaching and was kind enough to give our order first, out of turn,” she said.
But as soon as they left the shop, two men left the queue and started following them on foot. “Scared, my friend pretended to be on a call with one of our male friends and kept talking, indicating that we are with some male friends who are waiting for us. Only after that did the men stop following us. We then ran towards our car and zoomed out of the area,” Sharma said.
Across Delhi, women say they feel unsafe and uncomfortable while trying to purchase alcohol from vends located in grimy neighbourhoods packed with louts and drunk men. In many of these stores, groups of men jostle in front of window grilles, trying to shove each other out of the way to grab a bottle, making it difficult for women customers. In addition, pervasive stigma around women drinking alcohol and judgment from store staff strip any dignity from the experience of purchasing liquor.
“The areas around liquor shops need to be more inclusive. At present, a usual Delhi liquor vend is invariably crowded where people have to push their way through a large group of men. I do not know why most of these shops are allotted in dingy deserted corners and in obscure locations, whereas it should be just the opposite. Liquor shops should be in well-lit market areas where there are several other economic and leisure activities happening,” said Kalpana Viswanath, co-founder and CEO of Safetipin, an enterprise using data and technology to help make cities safer
A study done in 2019 by research firms Kantar and NFX digital found many of Delhi’s liquor shops were in a run-down condition and attracted an overwhelmingly male clientele. In addition, many shops were inaccessible by car, or had groups of men who shouted, jeered or laughed at women, making it tough for female customers to buy liquor in a safe and dignified way. “Women feel uncomfortable and unsafe purchasing alcohol from such outlets,” the study concluded.
Garima Sud, a Jangpura-based blogger, agreed. The 33-year-old said she faced a dilemma of “morality” each time she stepped into the local liquor store. She first went to the store five years ago but even now, she had to remind herself that she was doing nothing wrong.
“The whole environment near a liquor shop is so masculine that women start doubting if they have come to a place they aren’t supposed to be in….a female customer has exactly the same right to go to a liquor shop and buy items of her choice as her male counterpart in India. But, this dilemma that we are quietly made to confront is a violation of our right to freedom and free movement,” she said.
Sud felt the discomfort was a product of the taboo surrounding women drinking alcohol, and a creation of social, cultural and government influences that required broad efforts to change. She pointed to photos and videos from May 4, 2020 when the government allowed liquor shops to open: Snaking queues of almost exclusively male customers lined up outside.
Experts said the situation was similar at a majority of Delhi’s 720 liquor vends, of which 460 are government-run.
For a while in between, however, things had become better. Beer and wine, if not hard liquor, was available at local grocery shops that could obtain special L- 12 or 12F licences,and could be bought along with your weekly household edibles, making it a comfortable and dignified purchase.
But the administration’s 2019 decision to stop department stores from stocking beer and wine -- the government said many stores were violating licence norms -- particularly hurt women customers who are forced to go to shabby shops.
Official data shows that at least 18 assembly constituencies have less than five vends, increasing crowding and making it especially tough for women to access quality liquor in a safe manner.
Ankita Kumar, who works with an event management company and moved from Mumbai to Delhi two years ago, said a big drawback in Delhi was the absence of home delivery of liquor.
“In Mumbai, alcohol is home-delivered and the delivery persons even bring POS machines along with them for payment through cards. One call and your order - be it one bottle or a bulk order - its delivered in 30 minutes maximum. But, in Delhi one always has to physically go to a shop and purchase alcohol,” said Kumar.
According to Prince Singhal, founder of non-government organisation Community Against Drunken Driving (CADD), current trends indicate more women are drinking and unlike earlier, they are no longer dependent on male company to consume or procure liquor. “In Delhi, 40% of men and 20% of women (almost 1.5 million women) are alcohol consumers. The women’s alcohol market is expected to grow by 25% over the next five years. Also, weekend outings and mid-week celebration are enticing now due to discounts and offers,” he said.
A survey by CADD in 2019 found 43.7% women between 18 and 30 consumed alcohol out of habit or desire to do so. The survey, which involved 5,000 female respondents in the city, also said 41.7% women between 31 and 45 consumed alcohol as an occupational requirement or because of social norms.
The problem faced by women customers pushed Madhulika Bhattacharya Dhall to try and improve the alcohol purchasing experience. In 2015, she opened La Cave in south Delhi.
“One of the primary reasons La Cave Delhi happened was because I always saw my friends either sending their driver or peon to buy liquor. They would never go to a liquor store because of the whole experience. Even a good bottle of wine is wrapped in a brown paper and lots of other layers, as if it is anything forbidden to buy. It’s the same thing we experienced with purchasing sanitary napkins until a few years ago,” Dhall said.
“Nearly six years after opening La Cave, about 70% of my clientele is women,” she added.
A dignified retail experience needn’t only be high-end, though. Dhall suggested even stand alone liquor shops could use better-lit interiors, train staff, and place merchandise in a way so that women customers don’t feel intimidated or uncomfortable.
Liquor retailer Rohit Arora took a different approach. In 2015, he opened a separate section for women in his shop in east Delhi. “We have a woman salesperson to guide our customers. In that female-only section of our store, either only single women or couples are allowed. No male person is allowed to enter the space alone. The response has been pretty good,” he said.
A Delhi government spokesperson said the issue of better retail experience for women was raised by a government-appointed expert committee. “The group of ministers formed to finalise the revised Delhi excise policy is closely examining all the suggestions that have come in. The Delhi government will ensure that retail experience of liquor is made more people friendly,” said the spokesperson.
But the excise policy, reviewed by HT, doesn’t have any explicit provisions to improve the dignity of purchase, especially for women. It suggests increasing the number of vends, and better distributing them to avoid overcrowding. But, as experts point out, more focused efforts are needed to help Delhi’s women feel safe and comfortable while purchasing a drink.